To tidy, or not to tidy, that is the question...

Stipa gigantea and Eryngium in the morning frost

Stipa gigantea and Eryngium in the morning frost

Every winter brings the same question…to cut back fading herbaceous growth as it becomes battered by increasingly inclement weather. Or to not? By Jackie Hunt, Turn End's Gardener.

Obviously my quandary is not as challenging as Hamlet’s, but it is a thought that occupies my winter gardening months. I often recommend to people to leave as much structure in the garden as they can over winter. Stems, seed heads and spent grass flowers look gorgeous in their brown and beige winter crispiness, and I often find ladybirds tucked into curled up dried leaves and hollow stems. Frogs love the the shelter of decaying plants and leaf litter and hedgehogs make whorls of bamboo leaves for their winter home. It’s a delight to help the little fellow occupants of the garden through the chilly months.

Many garden designers also promote the benefits of winter structure. In December’s ‘Gardens Illustrated’ I read with envy of Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s own garden. The herbaceous and grass borders remain uncut through winter and look terrific crusted in winter frost. In my own garden, I love watching the process of decay and the ghostly structures that remain through winter. I would love to say my planting is perfectly designed, but perhaps a happy accident of my favourite plants and the reality of my limited time to spend tidying it.

Practical issues also come into this equation.  I’m flat out in late winter with masses of pruning, then there are the three giant heaps of compost to be spread as mulch over bare soil. And in a mild spring the garden can suddenly burst into life and I’m totally occupied ousting weeds. Any clearing that can be done earlier is a godsend.

I also take great satisfaction from tidying up a border, raking out old leaves and exposing the rich, brown earth again. Without the blowsiness of growth, the framework of the garden is revealed. It is terrific to admire the garden in its dormant, tidy state day after day through winter. Just snow, frost or mistyness will decorate it.

So what is the answer? I balance of both is what I find best. I leave the lovely grasses, the crispy sedum heads and areas at the edges of the garden alongside hedges and under trees for wildlife. And because many things have been flattened by the recent gales and tumultuous rain I’m merrily cutting back the herbaceous borders and spring borders so that they are neat and tidy ready for those early bulbs and first new shoots.

First published December 2013